Living What She Teaches
An interview with Katie P. Desiderio, associate professor of management and chair of the department of economics and business.
Katie Desiderio’s delight about becoming chair of the department of economics and business has everything to do with the fact that now she lives what she teaches. Being able to connect her classroom work and her research with what she is living is paramount. As Associate Professor of Management, Desiderio teaches management principles and practices to her students, but she hasn’t worked in a leadership role since her pre-academia career in corporate America. “This is an exciting opportunity for me to see if I am enacting the ideas and methods that I teach,” she says.
Desiderio lives a life integrated and connected by her philosophies and beliefs. Home, office and classroom exist along a continuum of her deeply held vision for how she interacts with the world and the people around her. You notice it immediately when you step into 202 Comenius Hall replete with inspirational art, soothing light, family photos, and dozens upon dozens of thank-you notes and cards posted to the walls and displayed on bookcase shelves.
“This is part of my world and my research and my beliefs and my teaching,” says Desiderio. “If the environment is encouraging or discouraging it affects how we feel when we work or when we interact with people.
A visitor to Desiderio’s room feels welcome, warm, relaxed. And she can sit comfortably across a table from the professor, enjoy a freshly brewed cup of coffee and engage—truly engage—in conversation about FISH!, flow, and other philosophies.
Inside Moravian: How did you come to make the switch from corporate to academia?
Katie Desiderio: After I finished my MBA, one of my mentors called me and asked me to teach a class in the evenings. I said no thank you, but she insisted. She said she thought I’d be very good, so I agreed.
I loved it. I experienced such a great sense of reward and delight in being in the classroom, and I found myself so energized by the vibrancy of working with college students. I decided to go back to school for my doctorate and when I completed my degree, I was very fortunate to be hired for this position here at Moravian where the foundation of learning is the liberal arts and the intimate campus allows for meaningful and productive student-teacher relationships.
IM: What is the single underlying driver of your work here at Moravian?
KD: My primary focus is on students and this rich opportunity we have to enrich and transform their learning journey. My research is performance based and explores what it is about each individual that moves him or her forward. I have the opportunity to live this in my work with students and in my role as chair. I am surrounded by the most amazing people at this College!
IM: And what do you believe moves people forward, whether students or, when considering your discipline—management—the employees of a company?
KD: I live by the FISH! Philosophy--be there, play, make their day, and choose your attitude. FISH! was developed through observation of a group of fishmongers at Seattle’s Pike Place Fish Market who follow these practices and have flourished in their business. FISH! Is about creating a culture where people can thrive!
Be there means being wholly present with people and truly connecting. To play is to not only have fun and be creative with what you do, but even more to be innovative, to think outside the box, and to be solution-focused (rather than problem-focused). Make their day is a prompt to find ways to serve and delight people—every day, everywhere you go. And choose your attitude is a directive to take responsibility for life’s challenges and to find a way, when things are difficult, to step back and count your blessings. This is a life philosophy that guides my being at home, in the classroom, and with my colleagues. I believe in it wholeheartedly, and it has changed my life.
IM: And you teach FISH! in your classes?
KD: I don’t use it in all my classes but in those where we are exploring work culture and how it affects performance outcomes, FISH! helps students understand what a positive workplace culture looks like.
Without me trying, students have embraced the notion of the FISH! philosophy and they bring it into their student organizations. As an advisor to Alpha Sigma Tau sorority, I’ve watched these young women use FISH! to create a culture that embraces the celebration of people. It is so important to acknowledge that people are the most important asset of any organization. We need to recognize that and celebrate all of the gifts that people bring.
IM: Tell us about your current research.
KD: I am working in the area of flow, a concept made famous by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Flow is a state in which you are so involved in an activity that you lose yourself in it. It is performance optimization and comes with high challenge and high skill. I’ve experienced it as a runner during marathons, and I was also intrigued by flow theory during my graduate studies. Sometimes, after teaching a class, I find that it felt so good, but I don’t really recall what I said or did specifically , yet the follow-up from the students is very positive. I became curious as to what makes flow happen in the work environment. How can we create an environment in which people experience flow and lose themselves in their work?
My research partner, whom I connected with during my doctoral studies, encourages performance optimization in his company, so our collective aims are to combine theory with practice. We have spent four years collecting data and have just validated a model for applying flow to the workplace. We’re writing the paper now for publication with one of the human resources development journals.
IM: And you clearly lose yourself in your teaching and feel fully challenged and engaged in the classroom, which brings us full circle to that singular love of your work here at Moravian—the students.
KD: I could never imagine myself out of the classroom. I feel so much exhilaration in working with students, in the raw vulnerability of what could be and in exploring what they know and what they don’t know. This notion of discovery is what drives me.